What Does a Renowned Nutritional Scientist Eat?

CC BY 2.0. Matt Madd

Dr. David Jenkins is the man who came up with the glycemic index. His own diet may surprise you.

You may not know Dr. David Jenkins' name, but you're likely familiar with his work. Jenkins is a scientist and medical professor from the University of Toronto who came up with the concept of the glycemic index, a ranking of foods based on how they affect blood sugar. This led to a spate of popular diets, such as the Zone, Atkins, keto, and South Beach diets, to name a few. His work has influenced dietary guidelines around the world.

So, when a person has singlehandedly shaped Western dietary culture so dramatically, wouldn't it be interesting to know exactly what he eats? The answer may come as a surprise. At a presentation earlier this year, Jenkins revealed that he is vegan.

While it's widely known that following a vegan diet is beneficial for blood pressure and cholesterol levels, lower rates of heart disease and diabetes, reduced cancer risk, and lower BMI, that wasn't Jenkins' only motivation. He is deeply concerned about the environmental and humanitarian repercussions of meat production. Leslie Beck quotes him in the Globe and Mail:

"Human health must be linked to planetary health, and how we feed ourselves has a major impact on the planet."

The way in which animals are raised, kept, and slaughtered has a profound effect on the planet. The sheer volume of waste is astonishing and cannot be disposed of sustainably. Food & Water Watch reports that cows on factory farms in a single county in California (Tulane) produce five times more waste than the New York City metropolitan area. Runoff from fecal cesspools on farms threatens lakes and rivers, particularly when flood occur. The nitrates, phosphates, bacteria, and viruses present in manure can seep into groundwater and contaminate it.

Then there's the role animal agriculture plays in driving climate change. The Globe and Mail says it is one of the leading sources of greenhouse-gas emissions and uses more water than any other human activity.

Animals are kept in confined conditions, pumped full of antibiotics to inhibit disease and to promote extra-fast growth, while driving antibiotic resistance in humans. Death rates are unnaturally high, as shown by the sows dying in record numbers in the U.S. due to over-breeding. The pain and suffering that they endure is real, and Jenkins predicts that future generations "will be horrified that collectively we paid no attention to these issues."

Much of this horror would be avoided if we drastically scaled back our consumption of meat, dairy, and eggs. Even if we don't go all the way as Jenkins has, an across-the-board reduction could make a big difference. Brian Kateman is the founder of the Reducetarian Foundation. He wrote for the Washington Post,

"A core concept of reducetarianism is that demanding people cut out meat entirely is neither effective nor sustainable. Despite decades of activism, polls show that only 2 to 3 percent of Americans are vegan and vegetarian and that 84 percent of vegans and vegetarians eventually go back to their meat-eating ways. By supporting efforts to reduce the consumption of animal-based foods regardless of the degree of reduction or the motivation behind it, the reducetarian campaign aims to create an inclusive community, shifting focus away from generating ‘pure’ vegans and vegetarians and instead toward us decreasing societal meat consumption.”

We don't need to eat as much meat as we do. We didn't in the past. There was a time when meat was special, celebrated, and expensive, both in monetary cost and in the effort it took to hunt, slaughter, and prepare. It was not assumed to be part of every meal, as it is now. I like how Beck puts it:

"For years, we've been making dietary decisions based on the calories, fat, fibre or vitamins and minerals foods contain. But, with mounting concerns over freshwater supply, loss of biodiversity and climate change, it's time to make the shift away from animal foods and toward a plant-based diet."

Food is so much more than mere fuel; it is life, for humans, plants, and animals alike. The wellbeing of all must be taken into consideration when choosing what to eat, if that life is to thrive.